A summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin ended with only an incremental thawing of relations, and both leaders sticking to the same positions they held before the Wednesday meeting in Geneva.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin agreed to return their respective ambassadors to Moscow and Washington, after both left their posts amid heightened tensions earlier this year. They also backed a joint statement affirming that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” and agreed to establish working groups on cybersecurity and on arms control.
Mr. Biden said only time would tell whether those efforts yielded any genuine progress. “This is not about trust. This is about self-interest, and verification of self-interest,” he said at a solo postsummit press conference. “As that old expression goes, ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating.’ We’re going to know shortly.”
Underscoring U.S. anger over a string of cyber- and ransomware attacks emanating from Russia, Mr. Biden said he gave Mr. Putin a list of 16 “critical infrastructure” targets – and told the Kremlin boss that the U.S. would respond in kind if any were targeted. “We have significant cybercapabilities, and Putin knows it.” Mr. Biden said the consequences of a U.S. cyberattack “would be devastating.”
At his own press conference, Mr. Putin denied Russia was a malicious actor in cyberspace, claiming the top sources of cyberattacks were the United States, followed by Canada and two unnamed countries in Latin America. It wasn’t clear how Mr. Putin came up with his list.
Despite the lack of major breakthroughs, both men praised the mood at the one-day meeting on the shores of Lake Geneva. Mr. Biden said he was “satisfied” that he had delivered his message that the U.S. was once more committed to defending human rights around the globe.
Mr. Putin, who has met five different U.S. presidents since coming to power at the turn of the century, said there had been “no hostility” at the talks, which he said were held “in a constructive spirit.”
He said the two men “generally spoke the same language. This doesn’t mean at all that we must necessarily look into the soul, into the eyes and swear in eternal love and friendship. Not at all, we are protecting the interests of our countries and peoples. These relations are primarily pragmatic.”
The leaders appeared to have found no new common ground on key issues such as the future of Ukraine and the Kremlin’s continuing crackdown on its domestic opposition.
On Ukraine, Mr. Putin stuck to the same line Russia has held since 2015 – that peace in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, which is under the control of Moscow-backed “separatists,” could only be achieved by adhering to the Minsk Protocol.
Successive Ukrainian governments have pushed for a renegotiation or reinterpretation of the Minsk deal, which was negotiated at a time when Russian troops were threatening to seize more of Ukraine. On Wednesday, Mr. Putin said nothing could happen until Ukraine fully implemented the terms of Minsk.
Mr. Biden said he had raised the issue of Ukraine’s sovereignty with Mr. Putin. Earlier this week, NATO called on Russia “to stop fuelling the conflict by providing financial and military support to the armed formations it backs in eastern Ukraine.”
Mr. Putin similarly gave no ground on the issue of human rights inside Russia. Asked by foreign media about the January arrest of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, Mr. Putin said Mr. Navalny – whom he avoided mentioning by name – had willingly broken the law. Mr. Putin repeatedly suggested that Mr. Navalny and his organization were foreign agents, linking them to U.S. efforts to support democracy abroad.
“If Russia is the enemy, then what organizations will America support in Russia?” Mr. Putin said. “I think that it’s not those who strengthen the Russian Federation, but those that contain it – which is the publicly announced goal of the United States.”
Mr. Putin rebutted questions about Mr. Navalny with references to the Black Lives Matter movement and, separately, the Jan. 6 violence on Capitol Hill in Washington, which saw supporters of former president Donald Trump try to prevent Mr. Biden’s inauguration. “We do not wish that this sort of thing to happen on our territory and we will do our utmost to prevent it,” Mr. Putin said.
Speaking after Mr. Putin’s remarks, Mr. Biden told reporters that it was “ridiculous” to compare the Jan. 6 rioters to those calling for democracy in Russia. In one of his strongest remarks, Mr. Biden said it would be “devastating for Russia” if Mr. Navalny – who survived a poisoning attack last year that the Russian opposition leader has accused Mr. Putin of ordering – were to die in prison.
Despite such divisions, Mr. Biden said there was a value to meeting one on one with the Russian leader. “I think there’s a genuine prospect to significantly improve the relations between our two countries, without us giving up a single, solitary thing based on principle and our values.”
Host Switzerland said it was willing to act as a mediator if the U.S. and Russia decided to proceed with a prisoner swap that both Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin hinted was possible. Such an exchange could see Paul Whelan, a Canadian-born U.S. national jailed in Russia since 2018 on espionage charges, freed in exchange for the release of Russian nationals in U.S. jails.
The two presidents first met for just mor ethan 90 minutes in a small group, joined only by their translators and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. That was followed by a larger gathering, with five additional officials joining on each side for a second session that lasted just more than an hour.
The setting, an 18th-century villa on the banks of Lake Geneva, recalled previous international gatherings that the picturesque Swiss city has played host to. They include a 1985 summit between U.S. president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that is widely regarded as a turning point in the Cold War, as well as more recent multinational meetings aimed at ending the civil war in Syria.
While Mr. Putin was seen as benefiting from the appearance of being treated as an equal by the U.S. President – Villa La Grange was chosen because of its symmetrical design, allowing for both delegations to be given an equal amount of space – the mood was distinctly chillier than in 1985.
Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev shared a couch, forcing their note-taking aides to gather around in a huddle to hear what was being said, then were joined by their wives for a postsummit five-course lobster dinner. Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin, meanwhile, briskly shook hands before taking their places across a wooden table from each other.
The delegations took only a 20-minute break during Wednesday’s talks, and official photos appeared to show the two delegations even drank different brands of bottled water.
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